US Airways employees hit the streets last week to hand out Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Washington and pump free gas in McLean to draw attention to the carrier's lowered fares.
Delta Air Lines flight attendants were on the streets of Boston and New York last month to spread the word about Song, the carrier's fledgling low-cost operation. The employees gave away free round-trip tickets to anyone engaged in what they described as a random act of kindness. They looked for people who held a door for someone or who returned a dropped $20 bill. The airline gave away 1,000 tickets.
The older airlines are imitating the so-called guerrilla marketing tactics that have helped vault low-cost operators, such as Southwest and JetBlue airlines, to success. With low-fare carriers now expanding service at all three Washington airports, the traditional airlines are hustling to keep up: They're slashing fares and their own operating costs, selling more tickets on the Internet and changing the way they get their message across. The offbeat promotions are intended to show travelers that the traditional carriers are, well, traditional no more. The days of stodginess and price gouging are over, the campaigns declare. Now, the veteran carriers contend, they can be just as much fun and just as consumer-friendly as their budget rivals. The executives say they are going beyond the usual avenues -- newspaper, radio and TV ads -- to convey a friskier image.
"The low-fare carriers are forcing this change," said B. Ben Baldanza, US Airways' senior vice president of marketing and planning. "We need to not only tell people what we're doing but remind them that we're not the same company we were."
He said US Airways had to find a different way to tell consumers that "we've changed." The carrier still plans to use TV, radio and print ads, he said, but they just "aren't as fun."
For most of last week, US Airways employees gave away golf balls and handed out free tickets to people who came up to them and said, "I love US Airways."
The guerrilla marketing model used so effectively by Southwest Airlines for years was adopted by other low-cost start-ups. When JetBlue Airways began flying to Long Beach, Calif., three years ago, its employees fanned out across the beaches there handing out JetBlue Frisbees, beach balls and T-shirts.
When Dulles-based Independence Air started its service this month, the carrier spent about $9 million of its $30 million advertising budget on 20 pickup trucks bearing the Independence Air logo. Employees traveled around handing out cookies, bumper stickers and T-shirts at lunchtime.
Fernando Espana was at a business lunch in Sterling, where he saw one of the Independence Air trucks drive by. He had seen the newspaper ads, but it was the pickup, with a plane's tail sticking out of the back, that encouraged him to check out the airline's fares on the Internet for his next trip to Florida.
"I never thought of them as an alternative before, but their non-traditional advertising made me think they were really different," Espana said.
But for other travelers, the key seems to remain: low fares.
"It's nice that they're making the effort, but honestly, as long as they keep their fares down, I don't care if they hand out SUVs," said Capitol Hill attorney Adriene Wilson. "It's a gimmick. And gimmicks come and go."
Still, the old carriers believe in the effectiveness of their guerrilla tactics. When Delta launched Song late last year, it created a separate marketing team. The goal was to sell Song as a fun and hip airline, far different from its 75-year-old main operation.
"It's like hand-to-hand combat," said Tim Mapes, Song's managing director of marketing. "The great results we've had is to have eyeball-to-eyeball contact with our customers."
Collect calls from the air: Passengers on US Airways, United, Continental and Delta are now able to make collect calls from their seats, in addition to using a calling card or credit card. Charges for the service are lower than they are for card users. According to Verizon Airfone, there's a $3.99 setup fee for each collect call, which costs $1.99 a minute. Callers using a card pay the $3.99 setup fee and $3.99 a minute.
Question of the week: The government's registered traveler program began yesterday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, with plans to expand to Reagan National, Boston, Los Angeles and Houston. Do you plan to sign up in exchange for bypassing long security lines? How do you feel about the required background check, fingerprinting and iris scan? Send your comments, along with your name and daytime phone number, to firstname.lastname@example.org.